Sept. 21, 2000

The Indianapolis Star


Olympian tales of Adversity Inspire Author


By Nelson Price



Elkhart native Lindsay Benko, a swimmer competing this week at the Sydney Olympics, and 1996 Olympic gold medalist  Dan O’Brien, the decathlete, emphasize the importance of maintaining a balanced life.

            Gymnast Jaycie Phelps, who grew up in Greenfield and became a member of the “Magnificent Seven” team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, describes how she learned to deal with setbacks.

            And volleyball player Stacy Sykora shares stories about growing up in dire poverty in Texas after her parents divorced.

            The are among the 105 current and former Olympic athletes and coaches whose struggles, insights and advice for young people are included in The Olympic Dream and Spirit (Exhusker Press, $8.99), a three-book series compiled by Colorado journalist Bob Schaller.

            “The common theme is that virtually all of the Olympians had to overcome obstacles and struggle with adversities,” Schaller, 35, said during a recent visit to Indianapolis.

            His Olympics books, which are written for readers 12 and older, are collections of essays by athletes and coaches. Their reflections were derived from interviews with Schaller.

            To select the Olympians, Schaller consulted sports federations, including Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics.

            Schaller, who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighed 212 pounds at his heaviest.

            “The athletes would tell me about their hardships and describe their work ethic,” Schaller said. “I would think, ‘How can I listen to all of this while eating Chee-tos?’”

            So, between interviewing athletes an editing their accounts, Schaller began running and lifting weights.

            He also worked up a sweat during some of his interviews, such as one with Bela Karolyi, the flamboyant gymnastics coach.

            “He’s intimidating and comes across like he’s been drinking cups of coffee with triple jolts of caffeine,” Schaller said. “But there’s also a vulnerable side to Bela. He talks in the book about how he felt shunned when he immigrated from Romania.”
            Other athletes and coaches feature in the Dream and Spirit series include tennis star Andre Agassi, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist; gymnastics and 1984 gold medalists Mary Lou Retton and Bart Conner, and swimmer Lenny Krazelburg, a gold medalist this year.

            Some of their advice for young people:

            O’Brien: “I tell kids not to let sports consume them. I think they should try everything in school. I played in the school band, was in the chess club and even did some drama club activities.

            Benko: “It’s important to set goals in life, but you need to enjoy life as well…if I’m not having a good time, it’s not worth it.

            Phelps, who was derailed by injuries in her attempt to compete in Sydney: “Instead of dwelling on the fact that I couldn’t compete any longer, I saw this as an opportunity to move on with my life and try new things.”

            Schaller is doing that, too. Now that his Olympic books are finished, he has embarked on a massive project; He’s writing a mystery book series, the X-Country Adventures, featuring a teen-age brother-and-sister detective team.

            The series will consist of 50 books, each set in a different state. So far, two of the books – Message in Montana and South Dakota Treaty Search (Baker Book House, $5.99 each) – are available.

            He expects the Indiana mystery to be published in fall 2001. It will be partially set at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.